Hopefully we’ve all watched or heard parts of the 6 January Select Committee hearings on Trump and the Keystone Kops stupid coup. If you’re like me, you’ve watched some of them live when you could and watched the recaps and read the hot takes. If you have, then you know all the punditing pundits have pundited that they are doing a good job because they are telling a story.
That’s funny because they didn’t begin with “Once upon a time” and with any luck none of the major characters will live happily ever after unless you think a 76 year-old man getting three squares and a cot for the rest of his life is a happy ending. For some of us, sadly, it is more than we can ever hope for, but that is the topic of another blog post.
Why are all of the talking heads jibbering and jabbering so confidently and animatedly about the power of stories? Is there any truth to the idea that stories can significantly change our opinions or outlook? Lucky for us all the pointy heads over in the psychology ivory tower looking down on all us peons trying to infect us with their communist socialist feminist hatred of America for our freedoms have come up with narrative psychology.
Narrative psychology is the systematic study of the role that stories play in behavior and cognitive processes. Psychologists, like many people throughout history, have noticed that people tend to make up stories to link present experience with past, explain causal relationships, and all kinds of necessary things.
We’ll take a deeper dive into narrative psychology and relate it to the 6 January Committee hearings and findings and stuff.
Stories and the Brain
Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, on the faculty of Fielding Graduate University, lists the following ways that stories affect the brain in Story Power: The Psychology of Story. Some of these are going to be very familiar to regular readers.
- CORTICAL ACTIVATION: Stories activate the areas of the brain that process facts, emotions, movement, and the senses. As you imagine a story, you use the same areas of the brain as you would use as if you were doing it, but, advantage imagination, we don’t die or become grievously injured.
- THE LIKING-WANTING SYSTEM: When you successfully predict parts of a story, dopamine is released into the liking and wanting system! It’s why a good story is so good and you want it to continue forever.
- OTHER EMOTIONS: As other emotions are invoked, you experience those, too. You’re releasing dopamine in response to pleasures, cortisol with stress, and oxytocin with empathy, compassion, and trust. That level of emotional engagement is as satisfying as having it in your life. We live vicariously.
She cites these functions that stories serve:
- PRIMAL FORM OF COMMUNICATION: Stories make use of common symbols, popular myths, previous story, and prior knowledge of the listener. She says Jungian archetypes and collective unconscious, but it is really deep culture of shared symbolism. This is one reason that attacking the police so brutally has created such bad press for the insurrectionists. White culture in the US dictates that the police are your friends and will help you; you don’t attack them.
- SOCIAL CONNECTION: Because as we listen to and understand a story, we feel connected to the teller and other listeners by our shared experience of the story. We’re all experiencing the same emotions in the same places; consequently, we feel connected to each other. Just like we discussed the episodes of The Game of Thrones or Better Call Saul or last nights game at the water cooler, we should be discussing the hearings. Our common reactions and interpretations will help us feel connected.
Stories and Theory of Mind
Theory of mind plays an important role in understanding how stories affect us. Theory of mind is the cognitive ability to attribute mental states to those around us. These mental states include beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge. We do it without even thinking about it. For most of us, it is instinctive, natural, you don’t have to be taught how, but you can refine it. For those on the autism spectrum, there is a big smoking hole where this type of understanding should be, but that was the topic of another blog post.
Narrative psychology extends this cognitive ability to not only include emotions, but also to integrate emotions closely into it. Because emotions are fundamental to our cognition and decision-making, making them central to how we understand the world and those around us is an imperative. S
Stories put us in another world, the world of the characters, To understand the story, we have to understand the emotions of the characters as well as the cognitively understanding the setting and plot. More importantly, we are able to personify inanimate objects and animals. We project human attributes, especially reasoning, motivations, and emotions onto the objects and animals surrounding us, but, especially, in stories.
These projections are based on theory of mind.
The Effect of the Insurrection Story
When we learned that Trump watched the insurrection from the kitchen of the White House and refused entreaties to “call off” the attackers, we immediately began to attribute motivations, reasons, and emotions to Trump. Most of us expressed these ideas on social media, but when we heard the testimony of the witness, we imagined the scene anew and were influenced by their interpretations. Wh
When Matthew Pottinger said that he decided to resign the moment that Trump tweeted that Pence was a coward, we understood immediately. When Pence’s secret service detail members were telling their families good-bye anticipating their own deaths, we understood immediately. Trump began to transform from the blundering fool with the feculent touch to the archetypal evil archvillain. When Trump said, “I don’t want to say the election is over, I just want to say Congress has certified the results,” we knew him to be a delusional petulant toddler. And
We knew these things because of our theory of mind. We knew how we’d feel if we were there. We knew what would motivate us to do and say those things or that there was nothing that would motivate us to attack police officers so savagely or refuse to admit defeat after an election.
Because stories help us make sense out of our world by translating events into a linear series of events, it is important that we get a full and complete picture of the events that led up to, occurred on, and transpired after 6 January. By fitting the story of the 6 January Insurrection into a linear narrative, it has helped us attribute causality, motivation, importance, and relevance.
Narrative structure also plays an important role in memory. We attach new information to things that we already know. We use past similar stories to make predictions about what will happen next, and when we reconstruct the memories later — remember, memory is like putting together an IKEA desk; it doesn’t always turn out like the picture on the box and is colored by the difficulty of assembling it — we will use those already learned patterns to help us. I
For a story to be effective and engaging, it has to be culturally meaningful. It has to capture the mind, focus the imagination, engage the emotions, encourage empathy. In this sense, the narrative constructed by the 6 January Insurrection has accomplished its mission. Tens of millions of people watched them live, tens of millions more read the hot takes and watched the discussions on the boobtube. I
Even though Fox News refuses to show the hearings and discusses only their twisted spin on it, the facts and events are now part of the national discourse. The hearings have shaped and re-shaped the memories and interpretations of those who watched them or the coverage of them. They will increase the cognitive dissonance necessary for Trump supporters to maintain their views; they will peel away some supporters who can no longer maintain the cognitive dissonance; they will engage the disengaged; they will harden the hearts and determination of those who already opposed MAGA.
Between now and the elections in November, as the story gets retold, we cannot allow the fundamental truth to be lost in the spin and obfuscation: Trump and his supporters wanted to destroy our government just so he could remain in office.
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Categories: Cognitive Psychology